The Phantom Menace Of Free-Ranging Cats
It’s commonly known by many animal advocates that free-roaming cats are considered to pose a threat to the ecosystems they inhabit, as well as to public health. But what if this common knowledge and conventional wisdom is wrong, and tree-ranging cats are neither a public health menace nor an environmental disaster? The authors of this opinion piece call out several anti-cat researchers for what they say is a misuse of the scientific evidence to argue for the extermination of free-ranging cats.
As an example, the authors point to the treatment of scientists who disagree with the anti-cat contingent. They cast cat advocates as science deniers, in the same boat with those who refuse to believe the evidence of climate change or the dangers of smoking. They claim that advocates view the anti-cat rhetoric as settled science, and proof that free-ranging cats harm biodiversity and that the benefits of trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs are exaggerated. In their view, cats are responsible for significant wildlife mortality and the spread of zoonotic diseases.
But to compare the well-funded, coordinated efforts against issues like climate change with the work of free-ranging cat advocates is inappropriate. On major public policy issues such as climate change or smoking, the vested interests seek financial gain at the expense of society. No benefits, either monetary or political, will accrue to the academic researchers and nonprofits working on behalf of free-ranging cats.
Disagreements also arise between environmentalists and animal advocates when animal welfare and biodiversity needs collide. Science suggests that free-ranging cats may suppress wild animal populations, but the actual damage to biodiversity needs to be looked at in context. Cats may become a scapegoat when there are multiple factors at play. Habitat loss, proximity to human structures, the introduction of invasive species, and other changes in predator populations or behaviors – they all affect ecosystem structure and balance.
Claims of a menace to public health are overblown as well. The authors suggest that certain researchers misused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website page “Healthy Pets, Healthy People” to frighten the public about the risks of zoonotic diseases from cats. To be sure, toxoplasmosis and rabies are dangerous, but again, the actual threat needs to be taken in context. Cats are not reservoirs for the rabies virus, but they can serve as vectors, or intermediaries, for wildlife such as raccoons and bats. What’s more, there is ongoing scientific debate about whether cats actually transmit toxoplasmosis or not.
What is missing from the fear-mongering is the common-sense actions that clearly reduce risks. Keeping cats indoors, washing hands after handling cats and proper litterbox management are all integral to limiting the spread of disease. The systematic killing of free-ranging cats is no more likely to control rabies than it was for stray dogs. Rather, efforts should focus on eliminating rabies in raccoons and other wildlife reservoirs, and developing vaccines for zoonotic diseases.
The authors’ recommendations on how to approach the issues raised by free-ranging cats will be helpful for animal advocates. They suggest skepticism when faced with claims that free-ranging cats present a clear danger to global biodiversity or public health. However, they also suggest that advocates should temper their skepticism when there is solid evidence of a threat. Here, advocates can collaborate on humane, effective solutions that value both the lives of cats and conservation needs.